William Philpott, Bloody Victory: The Sacrifice on the Somme and the Making of the Twentieth Century (2009) [Battle History]

Friday, February 25, 2022

There had long been a school of thought in military history that took the unfashionable and unpopular view that the British Great War generals could not have fought their Western Front campaigns in any other way than through costly assaults on the trenches, at least once the trenches stretched the four hundred miles from the English Channel to Switzerland early in the conflict. They took the revisionist line that the generals—principally Field Marshal Sir William Haig, the commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force—adopted the best strategy available to them in almost impossible strategic circumstances. Yet there tended to be an exception that even those revisionist historians would instance in their defense of the attritional strategy: the Battle of the Somme.

The Somme offensive of July 1 to November 18, 1916 cost the British Army around 420,000 casualties, the French Army 200,000 and the German Army 440,000, and hardly altered the overall map at all. The first day of the offensive alone cost Britain nearly twenty thousand killed. Prompted initially by Winston Churchill’s criticisms of Haig’s strategy in The World Crisis (1931), his history of the Great War, the offensive was long considered an unnecessary bloodbath by military historians, which even failed in terms of attrition as the Germans bled less than the Allies. Yet in Bloody Victory—the very title of which was controversial—Philpott argued that in fact the battle was a necessary stage in the war, from which the Allies learnt the lessons necessary to win the entire conflict.

Reviewing the book in the Daily Telegraph, the distinguished journalist Anthony Howard praised Philpott’s “great mastery of detail” and described it as “A meticulous work of revisionist military history dedicated to proving that if Stalingrad provided the tipping point of the Second World War then the Battle of the Somme served exactly the same purpose in the First.” Philpott argued that the truly appalling loss of life—which of course he does not seek to minimize in any way—was essentially unavoidable if Imperial Germany was to be defeated in its aim of hegemonizing the European continent. The Allied armies that emerged from the carnage of the 140-day Somme offensive were in a far better condition to prosecute the rest of the war than the Germans. This was revisionist history at its best.